In another sign that Michael Bloomberg’s presidential ambitions are still alive and well, the former New York mayor appeared in a Brooklyn church over the weekend to atone for his past support of stop and frisk policies that focused on young minority men in the city as a primary means of enforcing the city’s law against possessing an unlicensed handgun.
The bombshell reversal ends Bloomberg’s zealous, years-long defense of one of the most contentious parts of his three-term legacy — and comes as the billionaire political moderate positions himself for an expected 2020 Democratic presidential run.
“I was totally focused on saving lives. But as we know, good intentions aren’t good enough,” Bloomberg told congregants at East New York’s Christian Cultural Center, one of the city’s largest black churches.
“As crime continued to come down as we reduced stops — and as it continued to come down during the next administration, to its credit — I now see that we could and should have acted sooner, and acted faster, to cut the stops,” Bloomberg admitted, offering a rare compliment to his successor, Mayor de Blasio.
Over at Hot Air, my colleague Jazz Shaw corrects Bloomberg’s assertion that crime has continued to drop by noting that shootings are actually up this year in New York City, while crime did drop dramatically while “stop and frisk” was in place. Still, it’s politically expedient for Bloomberg to reverse his support for “stop and frisk” now that he’s got national ambitions. As Jazz puts it:
The reason Bloomberg is offering this mea culpa is obvious. The base wants to hear about less policing, not more. That’s basically what appears to have sunk Kamala Harris’ campaign hopes. So anyone “guilty” of aggressive, successful policing and prosecution of criminals needs to walk that record back pronto. Is this apology going to make the sale with voters? I’d be shocked if it does.
I tend to agree, but it’s also worth noting that Bloomberg’s “stop and frisk” policies go hand in hand with support for his gun control laws. Bloomberg himself noted the connection back in 2015 during an appearance at the Aspen Institute.
Appearing before nearly 400 people in Aspen on Feb. 5, the billionaire founder of Bloomberg L.P. argued that in order to save lives, police should seize guns from male minorities between ages 15 and 25.
“These kids think they’re going to get killed anyway because all their friends are getting killed,” Bloomberg said during the speech. “So they just don’t have any longterm focus or anything. It’s a joke to have a gun. It’s a joke to pull a trigger.”
National media outlets latched onto that portion of the discussion, in which Bloomberg said one method to deal with the issue is to “throw them up against the wall and frisk them,” referring to the controversial stop-and-frisk tactics New York City implemented during Bloomberg’s tenure.
For Michael Bloomberg, “stop and frisk” (or maybe “throw them up against the wall and frisk”) and gun control laws are two sides of the same coin. You need the gun control laws in place, for sure, but how you enforce those laws is just as important, and for Bloomberg, that meant throwing thousands of young men into a jail cell for the “crime” of possessing a firearm without a government permission slip, after first throwing them up against a wall and patting them down. In his zeal to go after violent criminals, not only did Bloomberg send people to prison for non-violent possessory offenses, but the vast majority of young men on the receiving end of a pat down were guilty of no crime at all. Even as the number of stops has declined under the de Blasio administration, most of them still result in no weapons found, according to a recent report by the ACLU.
Though frisks are only supposed to be conducted when an officer reasonably suspects the person has a weapon that poses threat to the officer’s safety, 66 percent of reported stops led to frisks, of which over 93 percent resulted in no weapon being found.
The racial disparity of Bloomberg’s gun control laws is also still being felt across New York City, even though he’s no longer in charge. Six years after the New York SAFE Act was put into effect and (among other gun control laws) turned unlicensed possession of a firearm from a misdemeanor into a felony statewide (it was already a felony in New York City thanks to Bloomberg pushing through a change in the city’s law back in 2006), the vast majority of cases are coming from the Bronx and Brooklyn, and the vast majority of those cases involve nothing more than simple possession of an unlicensed firearm, as reporter Emily Bazelon at Slate reported earlier this year.
When gun control advocates discuss how to restrict access to lethal weapons, they mostly talk about permit requirements and background checks. But that coin has another side: punishment for people accused of possessing guns without the state’s permission. In January 2016, Mayor Bill de Blasio established a specialized gun court in Brooklyn to fast-track the city’s “remaining evildoers”—his words—to prison. Almost all of them faced the most serious possible charge for possession of an illegal loaded gun, which in New York carried a minimum sentence of 3½ years inprison and a maximum of 15 years. In theory, the mayor’s initiative was a tough-minded solution to gun violence that anti-gun liberals and law-and-order conservatives could unite behind.
Two and a half years ago, I started visiting the Brooklyn gun court to see how it was working.
I thought I’d find horrific stories of gun violence and hardened evildoers, like de Blasio said. Instead, over many months of my reporting, I found hundreds of teenagers and young people, almost all of them black, being marched to prison not for firing a gun, or even pointing one, but for having one. Many of them had minimal criminal records. To be precise, when I went through 200 case files, I found that 70 percent of the defendants in gun court had no previous felony convictions.
As Bazelon learned, Bloomberg’s gun control laws are still being used to target young minority men, as the “War on Drugs” in New York City has been replaced with a “War on Guns” instead.
Here’s what predicted who ended up on the benches in gun court: race and age. Black people are less likely to own guns than white people, but the defendants in gun court were almost all black teenagers and young men. An initiative that sounded like a targeted attack on America’s gun problem looked up close more like stop-and-frisk or the war on drugs—one more way to round up young black men. Reviewing my book in the New Yorker, Adam Gopnik suggested that a kid locked up for a drug offense would have made a more representative subject. But drug charges are the old way of shunting people to prison. Gun possession, and similar offenses that states treat as violent, is the new way. And the 20-year-old whose case I followed wasn’t “the wrong kid” from the point of view of the system or the politicians that built it. His case was typical in gun court, because he was exactly the kind of person the mayor’s plan was designed to ensnare.
Michael Bloomberg can apologize all he wants for his support for stop and frisk, but his support for these licensing laws that make it impossible for many average New York residents to become legal gun owners is a bigger issue, and he’s not backing down from those policies that disarm good people in bad neighborhoods, while leading others to break the law in order to carry a gun for self-defense. Stop and frisk was the tactic, but the law itself is what led to hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers (there were 700,000 stops in just 2011, according to the ACLU) to be “thrown up against a wall” and patted down. If the average New Yorker could legally own and carry a firearm, there would be far fewer stops, arrests, and convictions for the non-violent “crime” of keeping or bearing arms without a government-issued permission slip.
Bloomberg’s about face on stop and frisk highlights a problem for virtually every Democrat running for president right now: their base wants more gun control laws and less law enforcement at the same time. How do you propose to enforce new gun control laws and crack down on “overpolicing” at the same time? You simply pretend that there’s no contradiction between the two. You apologize for the tactics, while promising more policies that would lead to the same disparate impacts. You act a lot like Michael Bloomberg did this past weekend, in other words. Whether it works is another story, but it seems to be their strategy for now.